A Conversation with Founders Rod MacVicar and Ruth Foster
“Nature is for education. Walk along a brook, listen to the babbling sound, look around, observe. Being in the field instills an appreciation, understanding, and love for what’s around you.” (Rod MacVicar).
This philosophy is the basis for Rod MacVicar and Ruth Foster’s innovative, educational leadership for the past 40+ years. In 1976 Rod and Ruth were teaching Biology 11 and 12 at Centennial Secondary. Because of their strong belief that learning occurs best when students actively participate, the Mossom Creek Hatchery exists.
Rod: It all started with personal curiosity. Back in the early 1970’s, I lived in Belcarra and I crossed over Mossom Creek several times a day when driving into town. (The road had trestles over the creeks, unlike the present day culverts, so you could see the stream.) I noticed that it was very clear. I watched it rise and fall with the seasons and I wondered if it had fish (I am a biologist and always curious.) In fact there weren’t any fish and I wondered why and asked around. There were lots of local stories, but no real factual evidence, (most likely just a result of growing urbanization). Anyway I began to wonder if fish could be introduced there, could they survive.
Ruth: Actually, fish are just the vehicle for what we do – educating kids and raising general awareness. It might have been frogs or some other creature, but salmon are a perfect fit. They are so iconic; they represent B.C. and they are a keystone species. For instance, recent studies of vegetation in higher elevation eco systems have found marine based nutrients in the stream plants at those heights (i.e. from the decaying bodies of the spawning salmon) showing once again how everything is connected.
Rod: If you do all your teaching in the classroom, you are (hopefully) transferring some knowledge to your students. If you can create a situation where students learn by doing (i.e. transaction), the learning sticks and you have transformation! So it was important to have students work in the field.
We thought Mossom Creek was a good possibility for student field work. We began to monitor the creek temperatures. Salmon are cold water fish and summer temperatures need to be under 17 degrees Celcius. Mossom Creek turned out to be a good candidate, clear, good flow, and good temperatures.”
Ruth: So in 1976 we started a school club, (The Centennial School Salmon Club). The timing was perfect. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was offering a course on “Salmon Environment” at Kwatlan College. We took our eight club members every Wednesday evening and it was a lucky match. It was taught by the very best in the field; experts such as Karl Walters. This was shortly before the Salmonid Enhancement Program (SEP) and DFO’s move to volunteer involvement. Prior to this time, it was believed that only professionals should/would be involved. In fact, they were really surprised to see kids at the course. The course was excellent, great training in the theories behind salmon and their environment. Truly, we were right at the cusp of a ‘sea change’.
In 1977, we received a grant from DFO and students were hired over the summer to build and install a salmon egg incubation box.
They did the construction work and we installed the box down by IOCO road. DFO then arranged for us to get eggs from Weaver Creek and we were ready to go. Rod notes that even the egg gathering was ‘ground breaking’ for that time. DFO was just beginning a role of community advisors; we were their first school group. We even had to get permission from the U.S. (salmon don’t pay attention to borderlines).
As it happened, this first year would turn out to be an educational experience in the large sense of the word. One morning they noticed the incubation box had completely silted up, wiping out the eggs (Silt cuts off the egg’s oxygen.). A subdivision on April Road was under construction and a company was dumping the excavated gravel and dirt up at the end of the Mossom Creek Road.
Ruth: When we found our silted up box, we went up the road and found a tractor. We called DFO and they ‘seized’ the tractor. The case ended up going to court, an unusual instance of ‘people vs. people’ (Federal vs. Municipal). The students and I were asked to give evidence. I’ll never forget the day a policeman in full uniform walked into class and served me a subpoena… a true learning experience!
Note: In the end, the case was lost as the law at that time only covered fish; eggs were not included in the definition. Since that time, the interpretation has been expanded to include eggs, alevins, fry, as well as fish. As a result of this case, Port Moody was the first Council in B.C. to strike an Environmental Committee of Council.
From that rocky start, the program has continued to thrive for nearly 40 years. Students continue to participate in the Salmon Club and the related classes (Biology 11, Biology 12, Fisheries Ecology, Fisheries Ecology Prep) with many graduates going on to related fields.
Over the years Rod and Ruth have deservedly received broad recognition for their innovative work. They created the program, wrote the curriculum, and pushed the boundaries of traditional education. Their success is evident in the large number of students who have gone on to careers in related fields, in the numbers of graduates that continue to return to the Hatchery as volunteers, and in the many who continue to remember their involvement with the Mossom Creek Hatchery as the highlight of their school experience.
Ruth – It’s all about the people, maintaining connections. Year after year, people come back, some with their kids (or grandkids). That sense of continuity.
Rod – Our work is about creating something that causes change: who we are, what we care about, how we value nature…a lasting connection to the student’s particular place at Mossom Creek.